Bill LaBounty: “I always tried to approach my music as an artist regardless of my status in the business”
3rd November 2011
Interview with the American singer and songwriter Bill LaBounty following the release of Time Starts Now : The Definitive Anthology 75/11. This is the original version of the interview published in French by Yuzu Melodies, a website dedicated to pop music.
When did you feel that music was your vocation?
I’m not sure exactly when. I’ve pursued music since I was a toddler. My maternal grandmother and her sisters were professional piano players. They were of Polish and Swedish descent. They played in the old “stride”, ragtime fashion. They played professionally in taverns and movie houses when they were girls. They were very influenced by Dixieland and Jazz styles. Very rhythmic way of playing. The stride style of piano is simply using the small finger of your left hand to play a low octave note, then moving it up two octaves to play a triad or chord of some kind, usually creating a 2/4 time signature. All the while comping the melody and other voicings with your right hand.
I think my passion for music came at about four years of age from sitting on my aunts’ laps with my arms covering their arms while they played. Before I learned chords, harmony, or melody I could beat out this rhythm on the piano, making a glorious, noisy, random din of music. While my aunts clasped their hands together exclaiming how wonderful I was. Could one ask for more inspiration than this? I didn’t exactly become a great, virtuoso piano player. But from then on I knew I liked that feeling of rhythm and approval. Gee. A longer answer than I intended.
Which musicians inspired you?
As a child I listened to the records of my mother and grandmother. Ellington, Armstrong, Basie, Bing Crosby, Nat Cole Trio, and many others of that generation. As an adolescent, with everyone else, I moved to R&B and Rock music. James Brown, Bob Dylan, the British Invasion luminaries, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Motown and Philadelphia’s Gamble and Huff. Later I discovered Bebop. Mile’s early “Birth Of Cool” album, Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and “Ballads”, Charlie Parker’s Savoy series of recordings. The Bebop of that era has never left my stereo system, computer, head-phones, car DVD player, and general life sound track since. I don’t possess the gift, or ear to play the styles of these great artists. But I can inject my love for this music into my songs.
Los Angeles was the place to be for a musician in the 70s and 80s. How was life when you arrived there? Was it as wild and exciting as it is often said?
I first came to L.A. in 1968. I arrived with a band I had formed in Oregon. We had played all up and down the West coast. From Seattle Washington to Las Vegas, Nevada and Sacramento (Northern California). We went to Hollywood to record 45 rpm singles in the studios of Gold Star and Sun West. My first experience with the deep grooves of the great session drummers and bass-players like Jim Gordon and Max Bennett, respectively, had a gigantic impact on me then. I immediately wanted to spend lots more time playing with these accomplished musicians. But at the time we could only afford to record two to four sides, take our master-tapes home to Oregon, and have them pressed into 45 record singles. An A and B side. We then distributed them to small, independent , family-owned radio stations. Most local stations in the Pacific Northwest were quite happy to play these records back then. We were, as you might say musically, “big fish in a little pond”. Only a handful of people were making this kind of music in the Pacific Northwest at this time. The ones who did are well remembered today. It was a much more innocent, wide-open world for popular music then.
My memories of life in LA at that time are of a musically fertile, bustling record industry town that was growing rapidly. The life-style, though, was very laid back, relaxed, and hippie-like. It was a playground for young musician-beatniks like me. There were already many great, soon-to-be well-known talents there. Like Jimmy Webb, Johnny Rivers, Leon Russell, Stephen Bishop, Randy Newman, Becker and Fagen, Hall and Oates, not to mention Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Carol King, and James Taylor. These people, for the most part, were writing songs for various publishers and acts and trying to get them recorded. All of them went on to great careers as artists, writers, or both.
There was a huge music scene on the Sunset Strip with groups like Three Dog Night, The Doors, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Buffalo Springfield, later Elton John and many other lesser known but no less talented people. Back then if you walked down the Strip with a guitar case and a Beatle haircut some major record executive might approach you and say, “Do you play that thing? Let me hear something? What do you got?” The business was that hot around this time. Pretty easy to get a record deal if you were serious about your art.
L.A. in the 70s was a very artistic town sometimes compared to Vienna or Paris at the beginning of the XXth century. Do you think that L.A. was the heart of an artistic movement?
I think LA in the late 60’s was at a wonderful cross-roads of underlying change in US popular music. The process was getting much more music-driven and less show-biz, Hollywood driven. Fewer shining star teen-idol icons and more shining starmusic artists. This was nowhere more reflected than in the recording studios in the L.A. of the late 60’s. Not that the Wrecking Crew wasn’t great. But there was a whole new generation of Bebop Jazz and hard-core R&B musicians and artists lining up to play and sing. I remember when Jim Gordon brought in a young unknown drummer named Jeff Porcaro to play on one of my sessions. I remember when Jeff Porcaro brought in a young unknown guitar player, Steve Lukather, to play on another. Much to my pleasure.
You used to write songs with your wife Beckie Foster. What was your working method? How did you work together?
When I met Beckie in Nashville in the summer of 1983 she had the number one Country song in the nation. She also had all of Steely Dan’s records, a love of Jazz, and my Bill LaBounty album from 1982. We were kindred spirits.
When I perform at songwriter gatherings and seminars I like to say that the nice thing about composing with your spouse is you can write in your pajamas if you want to. Which may have been more important earlier in our marriage. Now that our daughter, Emma, is eighteen and off to college in Chicago I’m hoping that my wife will once again become a major part of my creative process. And we can continue to create songs together as frequently as we used to.
As a songwriter, you wrote pop songs, country songs, soul songs… Do you work differently whether you are writing for a country artist or for a pop artist or do you write universal songs and let the artists adapt them in their own style?
I’ve even written with rappers and Hip Hop artists. For which I was asked to only write sixteen and thirty-two bar loops of drum-groove and bass lines for the rhymes of the artist. When I tried to get involved with ‘lyric’ no-one was impressed. So I stuck to my job. Which I enjoyed tremendously.
For the most part I try to ignore the genres of popular music when I write. But it is hard not to be cognizant of the realities. Country Music is very traditional with unchanging progressions as a general rule. Country lyrics are very “values” driven. Many are stories with a beginning, middle, ending, and a moral. This traditional approach can many times be comforting. It can also be confining. When this happens I like to “push the envelope” a little. See what I can get away with. In the beginning I was much more successful at this. Today Country, as with the rest of corporatized American music, is more rigidly bonded with markets, demographics, and economic bottom lines. No hard feelings from me about corporitization and music, it is the way of business. It is corporatization and government where my misgivings lie.
Mainstream Pop music is something I am more familiar with and connected to. The distinction in style between Country and Pop, particularly lyrically, is Impressionism. I tend to be at heart an impressionist when it comes to music. Making lyrical and musical “sense”, being logical is never my first order of business. Emotion is. Crying and laughing. As Dylan showed, sometimes there are emotional shortcuts through the logic and the mathematics of music and lyric.
Soul music, R&B, for me is a little like Country, a little like Pop, a little like Jazz. It is my favorite genre of American music ever. It encompasses everything I love about performers and performing. Feeling is everything but there still must be enough lyrical logic for the emotion to make sense. This almost always demands love, romance, intimacy, and the pledging of feeling from one person to another. That is my inspiration!
“Time Starts Now” is an odd title for an anthology. Does it mean that you are not the kind of man that look back?
“Time Starts Now” was a title meant to be inspirational from a romantic point of view. It meant to say, “Nothing ever existed before you and I”. Love marks the beginning of time. I am enamored of this idea. I feel this way every time I begin a composition. It is the ideal for all love songs to me.
There are a great deal of unheard songs in “Time Starts Now”. Where do these “burried treasures” come from?
Many of these songs were created to compete in the Pop marketplace of the late 80’s and early 90’s. At a time when I had relinquished my own dreams as an artist in order to earn a living at my craft as a songwriter. I devoted myself to the needs and facilitation of other artists and the very competitive needs of the Pop marketplace. I was successful much of the time and struggled much of the time. I always tried to approach my music as an artist regardless of my status in the business.
I saw you live with Robbie Dupree in Paris in 2006. It was a great show. Why are there no songs recorded live in the anthology?
This is a good question. I think it hasn’t occurred to many relatively uncelebrated performing artists to record and photograph their shows. The Casino De Paris concert was a special night. I would love to have had the foresight to have recorded and video-taped even a modestly decent document of that evening. It was very special.
“This Night Won’t Last Forever”, “Livin’ It Up”, “Never Gonna Look Back”, “Mr. O” are your most famous songs as a singer. Is there one of your song, maybe less known, that you are particularly proud of? A song on which you would like to draw the attention?
There are some on the new compilation that might be worth another listen. “Another Drunk” from “Promised Love” for the very uninhibited fade outro and song itself. An expression of true love lost and innocence. Maybe “Little Rivers” from “Rain In My Life” for a sentiment of mother earth that seems to me still timely. “Home-Free” is one of the ‘lost’ demos of the “Time Starts Now” box set. It is a song of lost love, redemption, and the road that carries a strong feeling of place for me. Music, especially songs, are so subjective. The nice thing about this new compilation is the number of compositions and years to absorb and remember.
Is there a missed opportunity in your career that you deeply regret?
Of course. How can anyone look back and not wish for, or wonder about other paths that may have been taken. But for the most part I’m very happy with where my life has led me. And there is still a lot more to be composed, played, and performed before I am finished. I’ve just recorded tracks for an upcoming album of Blues and R&B with my favorite musicians that I’m very excited about. And I’m anxious to bring my songs and my band back to France and Europe to connect with my favorite audiences.